Was There a Cougar Bite at Big Cat Rescue?

Transparency Is Critical at Sanctuaries and Zoos

As I was watching the inept way the Palm Beach Zoo was dealing with the death of a zookeeper, it made me think about the way we always try to be completely transparent about what happens behind closed gates at Big Cat Rescue.  The very day our critics, those backyard breeders and tiger cub pimps, were sending private messages to our fans on Facebook, alleging a cougar bite at Big Cat Rescue, there was a tragedy reported at the Palm Beach Zoo.  As you can imagine, the story of a zookeeper being mauled to death at a well known zoo, caused an international media flurry that resulted in our phones ringing off the hook with requests for comment.

If I have to write the same email more than once, it is probably worthy of being a blog post to our site, so that I don’t have to keep writing it.  The media can find it online, if they do any research at all, and can take their quotes from the article.  That is the genesis of this article and the one I wrote called When Tigers Kill Keepers.  Our PR Director Susan Bass and I spoke this morning about the fact that the zookeeper’s death, while horrific, would typically only have resulted in a two day news cycle, but it was being handled so poorly that it was still in the news today; a week later.  Meanwhile, our opponents to legislation that would end the private possession of big cats, were accusing us of not being forthcoming about what they called a cougar bite.

So let me clear that up now

There wasn’t a cougar bite at Big Cat Rescue

The Florida Wildlife Commission report, that is being posted by our haters, and sent to our supporters, has been blurred out in the sections that negate the earlier report of a cougar biting a volunteer.  These same bad guys filed a false report with OSHA and an online petition.  Since I had to take the time to respond to OSHA, I am posting here for anyone who has been contacted by those who seek to discredit us.

Dear OSHA Rep.,

Can you print this email as a response to your request, as accessing a fax machine is a huge hassle and mailing this simple answer seems like a waste of paper and postage?

First; the volunteer in question was never an employee of Big Cat Rescue. None of the animal care work at the sanctuary is done by employees. It is all done by volunteers. Paid staff are only paid to to administrative work but she has never even been paid staff.

While the original hospital report stated that she had been bitten, it just wasn’t possible given her description to me after the fact and the quarter inch long, minor surface cut to her hand. She said her hand never went in the cage so when the cat moved toward her, she probably just dragged her hand across the cage wall quickly, in order to avoid contact, and caused the scratch on the wire. The galvanizing can cause an infection, which is probably what happened.

When the FWC inspector came out on March 7, 2016 we found a couple tiny points of galvanizing on the cage wall that could have caused a scratch, of the insignificance of that shown to me. I’ve had paper cuts that were much, much worse.

I flicked the shards off with my finger nail to prevent any future incident. The FWC inspectors and I ran our hands over the rest of the area and didn’t find any other sharp edges. We have checked the other cages to make sure there are no flecks of galvanizing that could scratch a person or a cat.

Please let me know if this was sufficient to lay this to rest.

So, that was the extent of the event, or non event as it turns out.

By contrast the Palm Beach Zoo seems to have tried to cover up their death

News reports, nearly a week later, release the damning 911 call tape.  It seems pretty clear that the woman tasked with calling for medical help was trying to make sure that the news didn’t connect the dots that there was an incident at the zoo.

When the dispatcher recognizes the address as the Zoo, she blurts out, “Is that the Zoo?!?” Once the cat is out of the bag, the caller admits it, but you can hear the annoyance in her voice and how she tries to end the call without giving any further information that might be of lifesaving help.

“This is not the place or the time to take questions. This is an ongoing investigation,” zoo spokesperson, Naki Carter said.


When would that time be?  I’m guessing that they are hoping it will all die down and they will never have to answer those tough questions.

tigerphoto_jv065-2The medical report states that 37 year old Stacey Konwiser died from a “neck injury” inflicted by the tiger; falling short of saying it it was from a tooth or a claw.  The zoo has repeatedly stated that the zookeeper was going about her regular duties and did nothing out of the norm.  People have legitimate questions, such as:

How did it happen?

Why was the tiger tranquilized if the woman was still alive and in his grasp?

How long between the time of the incident and calling 911?

It the zoo were being transparent, I think they would be posting photos of the area, to show how safe their cages are and the mechanisms that are in place to prevent keepers from being injured by the wild animals there.  I would expect them to be posting protocols and training documents, like Big Cat Rescue does, to assure the public that they are properly training their keepers to stay out of harms way.  You would think they would be talking about how their accrediting body, AZA, does not allow contact between big cats and keepers and their strict adherence to that safety policy.  Instead they say, “This is not the place or the time to take questions.”

It really boils down to the fact that there are only two ways a zookeeper gets hurt by captive wild animals.  Either the cage design, or safety mechanisms fail, which is the fault of the zoo, or a person over rides those safety measures by breaking a rule or being careless.  If it is the latter, the zoo or sanctuary, may still be responsible depending on what measures they implemented to avoid such an act.  At Big Cat Rescue we have put physical safety measures in place and our volunteers are trained extensively around smaller cats for two years before they are allowed to graduate up to lions, tigers and leopards.

Despite all we do to keep our people and our wild cats safe, we do recognize that tragedy can strike in the blink of an eye.  When we hear that a fellow animal caregiver has lost their life, we aren’t looking to place blame, although we are frequently asked for our expert opinion on who is to blame.  The public wants to blame the zoo or the keeper because blaming themselves for enabling the continued captivity of big cats is just too uncomfortable.

Our deepest felt emotion to such news is to feel that gut wrenching sense of loss and sympathy for those involved.  It is felt so deeply because we know that accidents happen, physical barriers fail and humans sometimes make bad decisions.  It could be any one of us or any one we know and love.

So, what can be done to prevent such future tragedies?

That’s pretty easy and what we have been pressing for.  It is what makes us the target of those who post lies and half truths about us.  We could all just stop and think about why we have wild cats in cages and put an end to it.  Those who make a business of having exotic cats on display say it is to foster concern about them in the wild and to raise funds for conservation, but if the millions of dollars spent seeing animals in cages, actually went to wildlife conservation, we wouldn’t be facing an extinction rate that is 1,000 times higher than normal.  Breeding wild cats for life in cages has not helped save them in the wild, and may well be harming conservation efforts. Unfortunately the public seem to rationalize, “Why do the hard work of saving big cats where you may never see them, when it’s cheap and fun to see them in cages?”

The Big Cat Public Safety Act won’t put zoos like Palm Beach Zoo out of business, but it could help end tragedies where keepers think they have some bond with a wild animal who then kills them.  The whole notion of wild cats as cuddly playthings is promoted largely by those to breed cubs to use as photo props.  The more people see such images of cuddling with baby and juvenile big cats, or those who claim to be “lion whisperers” rolling around with exotic cats, the more they buy into the fantasy that they too can be “special” and get attention by behaving irresponsibly in the presence of apex predators.

As long as it is considered socially acceptable to interact with wild cats, or keep them in cages, the species involved are doomed, as are many of those humans who will continue to be injured and killed.



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